Breaking child abuse law to mean fines or jail

 

FAILURE TO abide by laws which will force the disclosure of information on child neglect or abuse will result in tough sanctions such as fines or jail terms, Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald has warned.

Under the measures, the national code on how to respond to child protection concerns – Children First – will be placed on a statutory footing.

This requires all organisations and individuals working with children to share information with authorities relating to child welfare concerns, and to follow protocols for the assessment of suspected abuse or neglect. Failure to comply with aspects of the code will give rise to a range of civil and criminal sanctions. These include jail sentences, fines, prohibition from working with children and mandatory external inspections.

In addition, Minister for Justice Alan Shatter is preparing legislation which will make it a criminal offence to withhold information relating to sexual abuse or other serious offences against a child or vulnerable adult.

A person found guilty of withholding information will be liable to fines or a jail term of up to five years. The only exception will be where a person who is the victim of abuse does not wish this information to be passed on.

Ms Fitzgerald said yesterday the effect of these legal changes would have a lasting legacy in introducing a strong culture of compliance with child protection rules.

“Let me declare again that the days of voluntary compliance are over when it comes to child protection,” she said.

“The new legislation I am bringing forward will provide for a strong system of inspection and oversight and the need to provide demonstrable evidence that the guidance is being implemented correctly across all sectors.”

On the issue of whether the privacy of the confession box could be used as an excuse not to report abuse concerns, Ms Fitzgerald said this would not be the case.

“If there is a law in the land, it has to be followed by everybody. There are no exceptions, there are no exemptions,” Ms Fitzgerald said. “I’m not concerned, and neither is the Government, about the internal laws or rules governing anybody.”

The Government’s stance, however, has met with opposition from the Catholic Church. A spokesman for the Catholic bishops said yesterday that the “seal of confession places an onerous responsibility on the confessor/priest, and a breach of it would be a serious offence to the rights of penitents”.

In addition, Bishop of Dromore John McAreavey, of the Bishops’ Communications Council, said that in practice abusers tended not to disclose evidence of their actions in confession.

“These are people who don’t admit they’ve done wrong, don’t admit that they need forgiveness – so the issue of abusers coming to confession and being hid by it is simply unreal,” he told RTÉ Radio 1’s News At One.

Separately, Ms Fitzgerald said health standards watchdog the Health Information and Quality Authority would begin inspecting all State-funded services to ensure they comply with the Children First guidelines. In the case of organisations which the authority did not have powers to inspect, she said she would prepare legislation to allow the Health Service Executive to carry out inspections.

“The principles of keeping children safe have not changed in the last decade, but what we have learned is the need for proper implementation, for independent inspection, for vigilance and for legislative compliance,” Ms Fitz-gerald said.

“It is no longer sufficient to say what needs to be done. We must ensure that all of society, particularly those in trusted positions with children, are fully aware of their responsibilities to children and supported in their work.”